Forbidden Phoenix is a theatrical treat –


Fantastical story of Canadian History and Chinese Mythology:
Forbidden Phoenix at Gateway Theatre

The Forbidden Phoenix

Book and Lyrics by
Marty Chan

Lyrics, Music and Orchestration by
Robert Walsh

APRIL 7 – 23, 2011

Forbidden Phoenix is a fantastical work of theatre, music and action choreography.  It tells the story of a father and son, but as mythological The Monkey King from Chinese culture interwined with the migration of Chinese labourers coming to Canada to work on the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

WOW…. I am amazed…. It is incredible!

There is much to commend for this play.  Actors must sing, and fight martial arts.  The music is a complex blend of East and West.  The minimalist set adapts easily with imagination and movement.  The script is multi-layed with metaphor and humour.

Michael
Dufays is an incredible physical actor. I was blown away by all the
little “monkey things” he does, like move his head, or scratch, or lope
across the stage.  He brings an intellectual Monkey King that both cares for his people, and also the emigrants who go to Gum San (Gold Mountain) to work on the railroad.  His character carries the story as many plots are revealed.

Grace Fatkin IS the Empress Dowager.  She has a commanding presence.  She is the protaganist in China, also known as Jung-Guo.  Her soprano is full and rich.

Kazumi Evans embodies the feminine in Phoenix.
She is graceful, emotional, vulnerable and strong.  Her balletic movements compliment the colourful costume which opens to reveal feathered wings.  She gives a good counterpoint to Dufays' Monkey King.

Damon Calderwood is
over the top perfection…. He is the easiest to hear and understand with
effective dynamic range (can you tell I am a musician?)  And he never goes into Snidely Whiplash
stereotypes…. the character development is excellent. You never
suspect that Van Horne is “the devil” – Shades of Goethe and Faust!!! I
was wondering what those red things on Van Horne's back were
initially… but giving a stick of dynamite to Monkey King to play with.

I enjoyed this compared to to other East-West musical productions because:
1) 99% in English
2) Music had a broader range of
styles
3) great character and story developments.
4) didn't
always understand what was going on – but it was still spell-binding and
kept the attention…. just short of breath taking.
5) martial arts
choreography – very exciting. Reminded me of Dr. Dennis Law's “action
musicals” at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts…. he also did
a monkey king production – but the music was really Chinese, and less
emphasis on story telling and story development – more on spectacle.

The scene of Van Horne dancing with the Iron
Dragon reminded me instantly of the Vancouver Opera production of Nixon
in China with Kissinger dancing and singing at the state dinner.

I was also amazed to discover the people I
already knew on stage and in the orchestra pit. Aaron and Alvin have
been in Red Letters + Aaron was in Flower Drum Song. Cam Wilson, Qiu
Xia He, Jonsey on Shung (not bagpipes), Jonathan Berard on Percussion,
Peggy Lee on cello. All leaders in their field and also do a lot of
cultural fusion! Wow!!!

I think after watching almost every Asian-Canadian play/musical
produced in Vancouver since about 1986, I have a good sense of what is
going on. While I did go to Nanaimo to see Denise Chong's “The
Concubine's Children”, I missed Marty Chan's “Best Left Buried”.

A
lot of people might not quite understand Forbidden Phoenix, and don't
like Chinese music….

I think the Gateway orchestra is amazing.
Individually, they all have done and contributed so much to Vancouver's
intercultural musical fusion. I had listened to it online…  Of course it reminded
me of Disney's Mulan – which I have the soundtrack.

Jade in the Coal's music was almost all
traditional Chinese, and was less connecting with a Western audience,
while being exotic – but the fascination doesn't hold long. Forbidden
Phoenix's lyrics were all in English, with Chinese operatic
inflections… creating both a familiarity and an exotic-ness.
East-West fusion has to stay away from stereotypical cliches to stay
fresh and keep from bogging down in old stereotypes….

I saw Peggy Lee in ''Québécité'' –
the jazz opera with a libretto by Afro-Canadian poet George Elliot
Clarke and music by Canadian-born, New-York-based D.D. Jackson – whose
mother was Chinese.
Qiu Xia He is the leader of Silk Road Music,
featured in the 2004 CBC TV Special “Gung Haggis Fat Choy”, and has
performed many times at the Gung Haggis dinners.
Zhongxi Wu and his
wife Karen Wong performed at the 2006 Gung Haggis dinner, and also with
me at a “First Night” show for 2005 Dec 31.
Jonathan Bernard with his
wife Lan Tung, form Orchid Ensemble, and I see many of their
performances.
Cam Wilson, wrote “Canadian Four Seasons” for the
National Broadcast Orchestra – which I saw last fall, and suggested he
create a 5th Season (Indian Summer) – we have mutual friends Mark Ferris
(concert master for Vancouver Opera) who is married to Gloria Leung,
former Ricepaper editor. Mark performed at the 2004 Gung Haggis dinner.

The musicians such as Qiu Xia, Zhongxi Wu, and Jonathan Bernard are so
authentic, and have played with both the musical jokes and hooks, so
much in their own careers that their timing is knowledge is impeccable.

Great that Alvin Tran made his debut in Red Letters, and is now
in Forbidden Phoenix, as did the South African Christopher Kim Sing.
Isaac Kwok was also in Red Letters, and I first met him in Flower Drum
Song, produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. I personally think
Isaac would be a great lead for Brigadoon (which was the last play I
saw at Gateway a few years ago).

Although,
somehow I keep thinking I should hear Chinese language coming from their
mouths. It's a bit of a mind twist of cultural expectations vs
reality. But that is like meeting a multi-generational Chinese from
Australia, or Scotland, who speaks in an Aussie or Scots accent. And I
have friends just like that! And we are in Canada, with a Canadian
play, set in Canada, for a Canadian audience – so they speak Canadian!

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